Musings on the byways of popular culture
20/07/2018 by Sewer Robot 41 Comments
Sewer Robot says
20/07/2018 at 15:36
It’s often said that nothing dates like comedy and we can see that, down the decades, our mirthsmiths have been among the most innovative of envelope pushers. Yet, among the cast of our situation comedies, how strangely persistent has been the presence of that fellow (or lady) we call “the dumb one”.
Back when the world was black and white The Phil Silvers Show featured, in Private Duane Doberman, a character so stupid the actor who played him didn’t need to be able to act, and I’m not convinced he could.
(According to Wiki, Maurice Gosfield turned up for auditions with long list of dubious acting credits. Rather than scrutinizing the list, the producers took one look at him and gave him the Doberman role on the spot).
But here was the thing: his constantly conniving Sergeant Ernest Bilko – a man otherwise forever on the lookout for ways to make a quick profit from his fellow man – was compelled to take a paternal, protective role when dealing with this audience favourite.
In the “Con Men” episode, Doberman receives an insurance cheque for $500.
He offers Bilko the money, but “looking into those trusting eyes”, he just can’t take it.
When Doberman is subsequently relieved of his windfall by card sharks, Bilko uses his own tricks to win it back for him. (Naturally, Doberman immediately loses the money again).
That was 1956. In the fairly recent Season 4 finale of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, the measure of how off course the main character and show’s moral centre Richard Hendricks has become is the fact that he is prepared to deceive, and jeopardise the job, of the show’s “dumb one”, Big Head.
The joke with Big Head, is that, in a world where everyone is scrambling for the big idea or opportunity that will make them rich, he – through sheer witlessness – keeps getting all the breaks without effort. Thus, when confronted about his betrayal, Richard can say that Big Head will be fine because Big Head is always fine. Even though we know this is true, the idea that dumping on “the dumb one” is verboten is so fixed in our mind that we still find Richard’s actions unconscionable.
All of which is not to say that comedy writers have not tried different takes on “the dumb one”.
At the most basic level, the “situation” features a number of samey characters (four retired ladies, three priests, six “friends”) where distinguishing characteristics are required and one is distinguished by their exceptional stupidity. This lends itself to the simple formula:
Character A says X
Character B replies Y
Dumb One fails to understand word/idea, says something dumb
Cue canned laughter
Reverting to the easy laughs of the dumb one has characterized some of comedy’s less proud moments. Fawlty Towers is one of the greatest of all comedies but Manuel, the character designated as its “dumb one” is dumb just because he can’t speak English very well.
You might characterise Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em as comedy where we are invited to feel the same protective empathy towards the hapless Frank Spencer as we did for Doberman… but is it really? I saw that show as a child and had no problem laughing along at Michael Crawford’s man-child out of place in the world (I was a big fan, then, of Jerry Lewis). But looking at it again now… well the kindest thing you can say is there are other things from the seventies which are even more unwatchable now.
(Mind, in more recent times, Dan Harmon has been criticised for extracting laughs from Abed Nadir, a character who, for many, “clearly suffers from Asberger Syndrome” in his show Community).
Actually having “the dumb one” as your main character is quite a step. I suppose you might say Mork, as an alien trying to understand the ways of Earth, is the “dumb one” in Mork and Mindy.
In the first series of Blackadder, Edmund is “the dumb one”, with his right hand man Baldrick running rings around him. In subsequent iterations Baldrick becomes dumber and dumber and is joined in his stupidity by Tim McInnerny’s Percy and Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent. Miranda Richardson’s Queen may be dumb, but is probably an evil genius.
Speaking of both “evil”and “genius”, one of the sharpest and most ambitious comedies of recent years, The Good Place, nonetheless has among its players a classic “dumb one” in the character of idiot criminal Jason. One might defend this as a double bluff – Jason’s dumbness is a necessary part of the show’s oh-so-clever allusion to The Wizard Of Oz, but it still results in regular plugging in of the formula mentioned above for easy laughs.
Anyone care to chip in with some thoughts, fond or otherwise, about the peculiar persistence of “the dumb one” in the sitcom?
Moose the Mooche says
20/07/2018 at 16:02
We were on about Hancock recently, and in the original radio series this role fell to Bill Kerr. There was a suggestion that his dumbosity was a result of his being Australian. Them was different days.
count jim moriarty says
20/07/2018 at 17:16
Again, it changed as time went on. At the beginning of HHH, Bill Kerr’s character was the intelligent one, and Hancock was the dumb one. I suppose you could argue that Hancock was always quite dumb, certainly in comparison to Sid James, who always ran rings round him.
20/07/2018 at 19:05
Oh yes, and Hancock-as-Sid’s dupe carried on into the TV version.
The Hancock character was revolutionary in the sense of him being an obviously fairly intelligent man who was also capable of quite extraordinary stupidity.
20/07/2018 at 16:45
I see the dumb one as a theatrical trope that enables one to project a little humanity and pathos into comedy and comedy drama. There is the fool, than there is the mute fool. You can exploit and cheat/ hurt the mute fool, but that makes the person doing the cheating/ hurting look bad. You see this in the occasional situation where Harpo Marx is victimised and the others come in to defend him. The wise guy ultimately defending ‘their’ fool is around a bit. I’m trying to think if there is a genuinely unkind and nasty treatment of a dumb or dim character by a main protagonist comedy character. I’m struggling, but it might be I don’t watch the right things. It’s an interesting thread I look forward to returning to later.
20/07/2018 at 19:07
Dougal, these cows are far away…
Black Celebration says
20/07/2018 at 22:51
Really good post @sewer-robot, I enjoyed reading it.
The reference to Some Mothers was interesting because I watched it recently and thought it stood up really well. I suppose it was Michael Crawford that carried the show – I appreciated how good he was watching it again. The Betty character is possibly the dumbest one in the show because unlike every other woman I know, she is weak and is passively swept along by his oafishness and does not question him or veto his very stupid enterprises. Unlike absolutely everyone else in the world, she believes every word he says and trusts his judgement.
The old shows don’t tend to stand up well apart from the skill of the actors. On the Buses is fist-bitingly bad now but Michael Robbins – brilliant.
Anyway, back to dumb characters. I like the ones that somehow function quite well in the real world despite being totally hopeless whenever “we” see them. Kramer in Seinfeld dates women and seems independently busy and wealthy, somehow.
I think sometimes a successful dumb character needs a pompous character with zero self-awareness to bounce against. Oliver Hardy could function in the real world more successfully than Stanley – but only just. Yet Ollie (and Stanley) believe that Ollie is an intellectual superior by some distance. However, we know that they are just as dumb as each other. Ollie bullies Stanley and shouts at him often but for some unexplained reason they are always together. They have wives and their own houses in Sons of the Desert, which was kinda odd. So we like all the characters to operate at some level of dumbness, where we are watching with disbelief over how dumb they all are, collectively.
Can you have a genuinely successful, popular and witty comedy character? In the US – yes you can – in the UK, not so much. Denis Waterman played a character in “On the Up” who, from humble beginnings, made a big pile of money through honest hard work – bought a mansion – and employed his childhood friends and family as domestic staff. We were meant to like him (and Denis Waterman can do this very well) but that situation (and probably not enough jokes) made us dislike him. If he was a criminal, or incredibly vulgar/stupid this would have be a funnier character.
20/07/2018 at 22:57
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… Betty puts up with Frank Spencer because a) he means well (unlike practically all other men in 1970s Britain) and b) without the beret and the silly raincoat, he is an absolute nailed-on HONEY.
Sons of the Desert is fucking genius. Isn’t that the one with “You wax-fruit-eater, you!!”?
Rigid Digit says
20/07/2018 at 23:01
re: Betty – It’s also because he has a massive c*ck (according to The League Of Gentlemen DVD commentary)
20/07/2018 at 23:06
Men are so shallow.
21/07/2018 at 00:11
I’ve neve really thought of Kramer as a “dumb one”, although he’s obviously got his own happy house on the outskirts of normaltown.
Frank might have an impressive schlong, but watching the episode where he does the test where you fit the different shapes into the correct holes, I would worry about his sexual technique…
21/07/2018 at 02:40
@moose-the-mooche Not sure – it’s been a while since I’ve seen Sons of the Desert. I may put that right this very evening. There was dialogue from it on the b-side of the Trail of the Lonesome Pine single. On arriving home to an empty house, Ollie wonders if their wives have gone to the mountains ( as that was where they were planning to go on holiday). Stan says they must have – because otherwise “Mohammed would have to come to them” …after an incredulous and angry silence, Ollie shouts “What has Mohammed got to do with my wife?” . Very, very silly.
21/07/2018 at 08:02
I’m sure I’ve seen a documentary where the writers said that it was a deliberate decision to pair Frank with an attractive woman because the characterisation would have been too camp for their intentions without her. I don’t recall his cock being mentioned but maybe I stepped out for a pee.
21/07/2018 at 16:28
I’ve always been convince that Laurel and Hardy are based on Pooh and Piglet.
21/07/2018 at 17:50
Sadly I can no longer think of Laurel and hardy without this creeping into thought…
21/07/2018 at 22:50
I’ve always loved Laurel and Hardy. It was passed down from my father and I inherited his L&H DVD collection. It’s only recently, spending so much time with my two little daughters that I’ve come to see a new dimension to their appeal. Laurel and Hardy are babies and their facial expressions and physical comedy are so infantile that it’s hard not to adore them. My wife, who didn’t really know their stuff has regularly raised her discomfort with the cruelty of Olly towards Stan. She’s right of course but it doesn’t really register with me.
Rob C says
23/07/2018 at 07:42
Stan said that the characters were basically two little boys/best friends in adult form barely managing to get by in a dangerous adult world. Absolutely. I adore them. Years went by before I revisited them and I have now have the classic era films dvd box set. Some great surreal lines too that escaped me as a child. Bees in his cockpit indeed.
22/07/2018 at 22:24
Very funny clip but it does make me wonder if L&H “brand” is still active and managed by families. How did Enfield and Whitehouse manage to do this without fear of being contacted by US-based m’learned friends?
Black Type says
20/07/2018 at 23:22
21/07/2018 at 06:33
I love Trigger.
21/07/2018 at 08:59
We all love Tigger ❤😉
21/07/2018 at 06:35
Joey is another dumb one blessed with sexual prowess.
21/07/2018 at 08:22
Essex or Friends?
21/07/2018 at 06:53
The Fool is pretty much as old a concept as comedy itself.
The ones I like best are where the Dumb One manages to end up ahead of the Smartarse, purely by force of the guileless self-confidence they exhibit, as the over-complicated scheming of the Smartarse brings their own downfall.
Wilson Wilson says
22/07/2018 at 08:25
The Inbetweeners does this – 3 of the characters obsess about sex or lie about their prowess, but Neil the idiot is the only one who ever seems to pull, without much effort.
22/07/2018 at 17:33
What about this..?
I get that the character of the fool goes all the way back to the comedy horizon, but a lot of the time that character was a fool in name only* and would often dispense wisdom or anticipate future events, but spoken through riddles or apparently nonsensical language – kind of reminds me of that scene at the start of Doctor Who stories where The Doc is telling whoever is in charge what they ‘re doing wrong and the authority figure keeps shouting “get this fool out of my control room/military base/quarry.
Also, being a fool in name only, their gags addressed to the audience are often clever wordplay rather than the “don’t-get-it”-isms of most sitcom dumb ones.
(*Really, they have been tagged a fool by society for not bending to the orthodox thinking of the time, but being unorthodox gives them a lateral thinking advantage – a version of this is Dougal’s suggestion that the very thing allowing Ted to get away with kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse is the fact that it’s something he’d never dare to do).
22/07/2018 at 17:39
Being There is an inversion of this. The man making the profound philosophical statements really is a fool.
22/07/2018 at 18:44
It’s been a while since I’ve seen but Nathan Barley is an interesting one – Dan Ashcroft is the sane man surrounded by idiots, and the idiots are winning.
22/07/2018 at 17:49
Delboy vs Rodney – Delboy’s over-confident scheming often brought into perspective by Rodney’s understated sarcasm, or “wait and see” belief.
Difference here is that they are so inter-dependant, they both end up losers.
Arthur Daley vs Terry McCann – Arfur’s “Delboy-esque” * business practices debunked by Terry’s muscle and (sometimes inexplicable) luck with the ladies
* or should it be Del-boys “Arfur Daley-esque” business practices?
22/07/2018 at 17:55
Inexplicable!!? Have you heard him sing?
22/07/2018 at 20:10
I was in Sanctuary Music about 12 years ago and there was an open filing cabinet with Waterman’s name on a divider. It was empty.
H.P. Saucecraft says
21/07/2018 at 07:12
Good piece. I got nuthin’.
21/07/2018 at 07:49
The ‘two fools’ scenario is a common comedy trope – the fool who knows everything, and the fool who knows nothing. Or the fool who knows he’s a fool, and the one who doesn’t. Pete and Dud did this brilliantly, and Smith and Jones in their head to heads. Morecambe and Wise (clue’s in the name) Little and Large…
21/07/2018 at 08:21
….the Gallagher brothers….
21/07/2018 at 09:01
Mike and Bernie.
Schnorbitz and Bernie.
21/07/2018 at 13:04
Hepworth & Ellen.
21/07/2018 at 13:15
Magnus & Brasse. 🙂
21/07/2018 at 17:29
Michael Parkinson: ‘What would you have been if you hadn’t become comedians?’
Eric Morecambe:’Mike and Bernie Winters.’
21/07/2018 at 15:35
A great twist on the ‘dumb one’ trope is in the superlative radio comedy Cabin Pressure. Steward (and son of the airline’s owner) Arthur Shappey is not very bright but by far the happiest of the four main characters. He considers most things brilliant, so his colleagues are forewarned that if something or someone (like his appalling father) is described as “…ok” it’s something truly awful. The other three are smart, and two are witty in that way only sitcom characters are, but over the four series, they reveal their weaknesses and neuroses. They take the mickey out of Arthur but all secretly envy his relentless cheeriness.
Mavis Diles says
22/07/2018 at 20:18
Nigel Tufnell. The plot of the film is essentially the band realising that they need the idiot in order to keep treading water in a sea of retarded sexually and bad poetry. David St Hubbins is also an idiot, but deluded. Nigel kind of knows he’s stupid.
The Young Ones was four idiots, the biggest idiot being Mike. He’s got something on the Dean, but the best life he can get is living in squalor with the others.
23/07/2018 at 00:18
In Craig Cash’s underrated Early Doors, Eddie ( Mark Benton) and his wife Joan were considerably slower on the uptake than anybody else, almost ( but not quite) to the point that the the characterization was a bit dodgy. Yet he did know the name of the dog that found the Workd Cup trophy ( “Pickles”). Incidentally, Early Doors is a rather poignant show now as it marks the very end of an era of pubs, just before the smoking ban and smartphones.
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